NASA researchers have replicated the bubbling chimney-shaped structures on the seafloor to investigate how the very first cell-like organisms on Earth might have received the electrical kickstart that gave them life.
In the study, the scientists report growing their own tiny chimneys in a laboratory and using them to power a light bulb, supporting the hypothesis that they were indeed the electrical source.
“These chimneys can act like electrical wires on the seafloor,” said Laurie Barge of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, lead author of a new paper on the findings in the journal Angewandte Chemie International Edition.
“We’re harnessing energy as the first life on Earth might have.”
The NASA Astrobiology Institute explains the significance of the research:
The findings are helping researchers put together the story of life on Earth, starting with the first chapter of its origins. How life first took root on our nascent planet is a topic riddled with many unanswered chemistry questions. One leading theory for the origins of life, called the alkaline vent hypothesis, is based on the idea that life sprang up underwater with the help of warm, alkaline (as opposed to acidic) chimneys.
Chimneys naturally form on the seafloor at hydrothermal vents and range in size from centimetres to tens of metres. They are made of different types of minerals with, typically, a porous structure.
On early Earth, these chimneys could have established electrical and proton gradients across the thin mineral membranes that separate their compartments. Such gradients emulate critical life processes that generate energy and organic compounds.
“Life doesn’t want to get electrocuted, but needs just the right amount of electricity,” said Michael Russell of JPL, a co-author of the study.
“This new experiment confirms what that amount of electricity is – just under a volt.”
You can find more information about the NASA Astrobiology Institute at http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.